The Real Reason Why Judges Break The Nib of Their Pen After Signing A Death Sentence

A death sentence is the highest and most severe punishment any court of law can bestow upon a person in humane societies. It is only given to offenders of the highest degree, who’ve committed crimes against the very nature of humanity – most often, this means murder. In some countries, the death sentence has been banned and replaced with life sentences – more than one life sentence if the crime calls upon it.

In India, the death sentence is still used in its courts, following the degree of crime committed.

Of all places, you wouldn’t think tradition has a place in this setting, however, it is. Since the time of the British Raj, judges have followed the custom of breaking the nib of their pens after signing a death sentence.

According to research done by the National Law University in Delhi back in 2018, there have been 1,414 people executed in India since its independence. Compared to other countries, these numbers are low. Judges in India, after all, try as much as they can to avoid giving out death sentences. Thus, death sentences are relatively rare, and they’re not easy decisions for the judges involved.

Perhaps the credit goes to their country’s fundamental concept of law, which is: “It’s better for a hundred guilty people to be free than for one innocent person to suffer”

Circling back to the breaking of the nib custom – why do judges do it?

As mentioned earlier, sentencing someone to death in India is a rare and heavy form of punishment, done only when the crime is so severe. There are three theories as to why judges do this after signing a death warrant.

One of the theories states that the nib of the pen is destroyed after the act of giving the death sentence so the pen that signed away another human being’s life will never be used again. It’s considered, to some degree, an “unholy” pen that should never be used for anything else again.

In this theory, the breaking of the pen’s nib is a symbolic act more than anything else. It can also be considered as a way judges distance themselves from the judgment and guilt of their decision, no matter how warranted they might be. It makes perfect sense given that India and its citizens are known to be very religious, with some of them believing in reincarnation.

The second theory, on the other hand, offers a more functional reason behind the custom of judges breaking the nibs of their pens, but still hinges on the gravity of the decision they’ve made. According to this theory, judges break the nib of their pen after signing a death sentence in order to silence anyone, including themselves, from questioning the verdict. Again, awarding a death sentence is a heavy decision and its resulting guilt might push the judge to reverse their decision, thus destroying their credibility and people’s respect for them to a degree. After the breaking of the nib, only the superior court has the power to override the decision.

Lastly, a theory suggests that the judge breaks the nib out of guilt, believing that only God has the right to take another person’s life. In breaking the nib of the pen, they declare that they are only doing what they’ve sworn to do for the good of the many.

Interesting, right? Who would’ve thought breaking a pen’s nib could be so significant?

In the end, it doesn’t take a degree to know that a death sentence is a huge, life-changing decision for everyone involved. If breaking a nib of a pen can bring somebody some semblance of peace, then let it be a custom they keep.